Thanks to all of our contributors and commentators who have participated in #FoundingFiction, a series revisiting children’s and young adult literature about early America. Today, Sara Georgini wraps up the roundtable by chatting with Laurie Halse Anderson, prize-winning author of Independent Dames, Fever 1793, Chains, Forge, Ashes, and more.
JUNTO: How did you become interested in writing about early American history for children and young adults?
ANDERSON: I was incredibly frustrated by my history textbooks. It seemed like they’d been written with the sole purpose of making history as dull as possible. So I kept looking for well-written books that would feed my hunger to understand earlier times. And then I decided to try to write a few of my own.
JUNTO: Throughout the #FoundingFiction roundtable, it’s been fascinating to experience—here and online—how people remember and then revisit books like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Johnny Tremaine. Do you have any favorite books or big questions about the past that have shaped your work?
ANDERSON: My favorite historical fiction was the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But when I reread them as an adult, I was horrified at the racist descriptions of Native American peoples and African Americans. This is why I strongly encourage people to re-read their childhood favorites; they are not always what we think they are.
My big questions were formed when (as an adult) I learned that Benjamin Franklin had held people in slavery his entire adult life: Why do we only discuss slavery in the context of the Civil War? How could America have won the war for freedom when twenty percent of her people were still held in slavery? How much longer are we going to continue studying the whitewashed version of Early America? How can we expect to solve America’s problems of social injustice, and racially-based lack of equal standing, opportunities, and respect, when we refuse to study the history that created the problems of today?
JUNTO: How did you research and write Fever 1793, which tells the story of Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic, through the eyes of young Mattie Cook?
ANDERSON: I was living outside Philadelphia and so had easy access to the treasure trove of primary source documents at the Historical Society of Philadelphia (http://hsp.org/). God bless the generations of historically-minded Philadelphians who turned over their family treasures to the Society! There were poignant, heartfelt letters in the collection that gave me tremendous insight into the emotional toll of the epidemic, as well as things like the carpenter’s business journal in which he recorded making only coffins (instead of tables and chairs) during the months of the epidemic, and the records of the temporary Bush Hill Hospital.
Writing Fever 1793 set the pattern for the writing of Chains, Forge, and Ashes. I researched deeply (for years), wrote an outline so I could figure out what I didn’t know, then researched some more. I opened every chapter with a primary source quote, and ended each book with Q&A formatted back matter to clarify for readers what was based on historical fact and what was fiction. None of these books could have been properly written without the generous assistance of academic historians who read and vetted my manuscripts. They are my heroes.
JUNTO: When you’re addressing a younger audience, what are the hardest parts of early American history to write? How do you talk about disease, death, poverty, and struggle on the page?
ANDERSON: Honestly. We do young readers a disservice when we try to shelter them from the harsher realities of the past. Children know that life is hard; they are relying on us to explain why this is the case.
JUNTO: How foreign or familiar should the past “feel” in children’s literature, and how do you make it sound authentic? When you research and write, how do you listen for an 18th-century girl’s voice?
ANDERSON: This is a huge challenge. I’ve read every period journal and collection of letters I could get my hands on, but that only gives us insight into the writing patterns of the educated, people who had the time and materials to write. I chose instead to use vocabulary as the ‘flavor enhancer’ of language; having my characters use slang and other period-words, and write the dialog so that the meaning of these words becomes understandable in context.
JUNTO: In the Seeds of America series (Chains, Forge, Ashes), each chapter begins with an extract of a primary source. How do you find and select those (real) voices to give meaning and historical context to different parts of the (fictional) narrative?
ANDERSON: I came across all of the primary source quotes in the course of my research. Whenever I found a line that packed a punch, I’d file it in a document organized by theme. It has been a special thrill to learn from readers how much they enjoyed these quotes. I’ll soon be adding sources for all of them to my website.
JUNTO: For very early Americanists, Independent Dames offers a colorful, whirlwind tour of women’s roles in the American Revolution. What did you learn from presenting this material in picture-book format? Can you recommend other graphic novels about early America that might appeal to all ages?
ANDERSON: There is a real need for more books like this in children’s literature. It was a huge challenge to have to deal with such a short word count, but I trusted my illustrator, Matt Faulkner, to make up for it with his energetic art—and he certainly did! Matt had me send along all of my research notes to him, and then he did further visual research to make sure he did the best job possible.
JUNTO: How do you think early Americanist writers (of fiction and nonfiction) have changed, when it comes to including more voices and views, i.e. African-American and Native American narratives of the period? Where else can we go to access these stories?
We need more change. Children’s publishing is finally beginning to respond to decades of calls for more stories about the roles of non-white Americans in our history. We’ve been helped tremendously by historians who have been doing groundbreaking work in bringing the history of marginalized groups of people to light. But we need more stories from more authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds. Our children need to hear their voices and their perspective on our history. Another challenge is to get textbook publishers to stop being idiots and to start publishing history books that reflect today’s broader understanding of American history.
JUNTO: Can you offer any advice for Junto readers who want to write history for children and young adults?
ANDERSON: Join us!! The field of children’s literature is open to all and hungry for well-researched historical stories. You may want to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) as you start your journey. That organization helped me get my career started.
JUNTO: Finally, what are you working on next?
ANDERSON: I’m writing a contemporary YA novel right now, but when that’s done. I’ll finish up my George Washington picture book, and get to work on the non-fiction companion book for the Seeds of America trilogy. There are so many more stories to tell!